The Sabotage Behind the Smile


Henri is supposed to help you with this big project the boss requested. He gives you lots of his time and advice. He seems extremely helpful, particularly in correcting mistakes and oversights. You feel fortunate to have his assistance. However, a few days later the boss is giving you an inquisition about all the mistakes you made, how much time it is taking, and questioning the materials you are using to complete the project. She seems to think that you can not handle this task and maybe it should be given to someone else perhaps—Henri.

Before therapeutic terminology became common language, a person now described as displaying passive aggressive behavior would be called a back-stabber. They can make life difficult for all while seemingly doing nothing wrong. Passive aggressive co-workers rarely confront situations and will avoid straightforward, honest communication. Instead of expressing their needs or desires, they will pretend that all is well. Hostility will be couched and hidden but never displayed overtly. Envy, jealousy, or dislike can turn into sabotage at every opportunity.

A passive aggressive person will rarely share information because information is power. When working on a project with this type of person key instructions will not get transmitted to you. The first time I worked with a client who in turn worked with the Japanese he was sure to tell me when offering my business card to turn it to face the recipient. But he did not tell me that during the meeting the card should remain on the table or that upon being given the card initially, you stop and study it before continuing the conversation.

When a passive aggressive person has a high need for control it can take the form of resistance. If you close the windows on your computer prior to shut down and request that everyone do so, he or she will not. When angry they will often engineer a situation in which you will pay the consequences. For example, on a day when a great deal of work needs to be done, he or she will call in sick and but not let you know. This sticks yours truly with the entire project.

Always having a way out of a sticky situation and being right are key emotional needs. Here is a common scenario: You clearly remember a conversation and a set of agreements with the person yet later he says it never occurred. Or you are assigning a task with clear and specific directions about how it is to be done. When you get it back it looks very different than what you discussed. When challenged the person is likely to say “you never told me to do it that way”.

What to do

This behavior is difficult to manage. If this is a co-worker, try these strategies.

  1. To cover yourself when working on a project together, be sure to see all related documents and hear all the instructions yourself. Check behind your passive aggressive co-worker to be sure nothing is being concealed or withheld.
  2. In cases where there are a whole series of discussions, it is helpful to have your conversations in front of witnesses. The passive aggressive person is less likely to deny an incident when someone other than you can refute.
  3. Put all of your dealings with the person in writing. A brief memo or e-mail is sufficient. And, of course, keep copies somewhere other than in your easily accessible desk drawer.
  4. When necessary, take this to the next step by having him or her initial the documents after reading them. Then, they cannot fall back on “You sent it by e-mail? Oh, I never got that.” This is one of the only ways to discipline a passive aggressive co-worker. Without documentation, he or she is very skilled at manipulating situations, finger-pointing and convincing others that any flaws are due to your perception, not his or her performance.
  5. Passive aggressive behavior is premeditated and you are probably not the only person on the receiving end. It can be identified by looking for a pattern of consistent behavior. This is not accidental; it takes time and energy to get things just so. Winning over someone like this is extremely difficult. You are probably not going to be able to change them, but you can protect yourself by using these Smart Thinking strategies, minimizing your dependence on them and documenting everything.

Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: Visit us at: call: 1-800-599-8463.

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